Most major corporate, academic and other networking events have been cancelled because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus while travelling or at the events themselves. This flurry of cancellations has even spawned a literally titled website: https://www.isitcanceledyet.com/. But the changes in behaviour now being forced upon us might benefit the planet in the long term as we find and get used to other ways of holding meetings.
The COVID-19 pandemic is driving the development of these alternatives to physical travel and meetings much more strongly than climate change had to date. With many countries closing their borders, limiting domestic travel and imposing restrictions on large gatherings, few conferences are likely to proceed in the coming months of 2020.
In this record-breaking bushfire season, notifications from emergency managers have become a familiar feature of Australian life. Terms like “out of control” and “contained” are regularly heard as descriptions of the status of fires, but what do they actually mean?
The status of a fire is a description of the stage of the firefighting effort, not the nature of the fire or its likelihood of being a threat. This means that to understand what actions to take when an active fire is nearby, it’s important to follow the advice of your local fire and emergency information sources.
A fire described as “going” or “out of control” is one where parts of its perimeter are burning and have the potential to spread into unburnt areas.
The perimeter is the focus as it is where unburnt fine fuels (consisting of the litter on the forest floor, shrubs and bark) are being ignited and burning rapidly. The flames of these subside quickly, so the majority of a fire’s interior consists of blackened area where only heavy fuels such as logs and branches continue to burn.
A fire will be given the status “going” when it is first detected or reported to emergency authorities. The status may also be used for fires that were controlled and subsequently breakaway (escape control).
“Going” fires will typically be the subject of concentrated firefighting effort to prevent growth and minimise the impacts to things of value (i.e. lives, property, infrastructure and ecosystem services). However the term is inclusive of all fires that are able to spread, so encompasses everything from shrubs burning under a tree hit by lighting to intense firestorms.
Contained or “being controlled’
A “contained” fire is one with a complete containment line around its perimeter. “Being controlled” will have a complete or near-complete containment line. Containment lines (also called control lines or firelines) are the main way to stop bushfires spreading.
While our images of firefighters involve hoses spraying water against the flames, water is, in fact, inefficient because of the vast amounts needed to douse the large amounts of burning vegetation and the difficulty of maintaining supply in rugged terrain.
Instead, to stop fires spreading, firefighters create containment lines where all fuels are removed in bands adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. This prevents the fire reaching unburnt vegetation, starving the flames of new material to burn.
So how are containment lines created? Typically, with heavy machinery (often bulldozers), which scrape away all burnable material around the edge of the fire so nothing but mineral soil remains. In rugged terrain, this may be done by hand, by specialist crews using tools such as rakehoes and chainsaws.
Where there are existing areas of low fuel in the landscape, such as roads, bodies of water or previously burnt areas, firefighters may also include these as part of their containment strategy.
It’s not safe to construct a line where fires are spreading rapidly, producing many embers, behaving erratically, have deep flames or are exhibiting firestorm-type behaviours (where the fire is so intense it can generate extreme winds and even lightning).
At such times firefighters will either move to parts of the fire where behaviour is less intense (typically where the wind is pushing the flames away from unburnt fuel), apply indirect firefighting methods such as backburning (burning areas in front of the advancing fire) or retreat and focus on protecting life and property.
The exceptionally hot, dry and windy conditions of the 2019/20 fire season have resulted in many rapidly expanding bushfires that have overwhelmed the capacity of firefighters to build containment lines.
As a fire is being contained, crews will be assigned to patrol the already constructed parts of the line to prevent escapes. The burning-out of unburnt fuels within the containment lines may be done to reduce the chance this ignites and causes issues at a future date.
Under control, or ‘patrol’
A fire that’s “under control” has a full containment line around it, and there has been a degree of consolidation so fire escaping outside the lines is unlikely.
This consolidation is called “mopping up” or “blacking out”, and consists of crews working along the edge of the fire to extinguish or stabilise any burning material in the fire area within a set distance of the line.
You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.
You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?
We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.
Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.
Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.
After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.
Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.
But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.
For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.
What is eco-anxiety?
Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.
The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.
The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.
While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.
Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.
We’re pretty resilient, but support helps
We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.
We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.
Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.
Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.
This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.
Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.
Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.
Seeking professional help
Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.
Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.
If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.
Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.
When astronauts look out their window in space, this is what they see:
It’s similar to what you might see from an aeroplane window, but higher and covering a wider area.
As you read this, many unmanned satellites are orbiting and photographing Earth. These images are used to monitor fires in real-time. They fall into two categories: reflective and thermal.
Reflective images capture information in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum (in other words, what we can see). But they also capture information in wavelengths we can’t see, such as infrared wavelengths.
If we use only the visible wavelengths, we can render the image similar to what we might see with the naked eye from a satellite. We call these “true colour” images.
Note that the image doesn’t have political boundaries, as these aren’t physical features. To make satellite imagery useful for navigation, we overlay the map with location points.
From this, we can predict where the fires are by looking at the smoke. However, the fires themselves are not directly visible.
‘False colour’ images
Shortwave infrared bands are less sensitive to smoke and more sensitive to fire, which means they can tell us where fire is present.
Converting these wavelengths into visible colours produces what we call “false colour” images. For instance:
In this shortwave infrared image, we start to “see” under the smoke, and can identify active fires. We can also learn more about the areas that are already burnt.
Thermal and hotspots
As their name suggests, thermal images measure how hot or cold everything in the frame is. Active fires are detected as “hotspots” and mapped as points on the surface.
While reflective imagery is only useful when obtained by a satellite during daytime, thermal hotspots can be measured at night – doubling our capacity to observe active fires.
This information can be used to create maps showing the aggregation of hotspots over several days, weeks or months.
When hotspots, which show “hot” pixels, are shown as extremely big icons, or are collected over long periods, the results can be deceiving. They can indicate a much larger area to be under fire than what is really burning.
For example, it would be wrong to believe all the areas in red in the map below are burning or have already burnt. It’s also unclear over what period of time the hotspots were aggregated.
Considering all of the above, there are some key questions you can ask to gauge the authenticity of a bushfire map. These are:
Where does this map come from, and who produced it?
is this a single satellite image, or one using hotspots overlaid on a map?
what are the colours representing?
do I know when this was taken?
if this map depicts hotspots, over what period of time were they collected? A day, a whole year?
is the size of the hotspots representative of the area that is actually burning?
So, the next time you see a bushfire map, think twice before pressing the share button.
In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.
The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.
Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.
We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving “suspiciously”, compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.
The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different “master narrative”.
Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter’s early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.
Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.
Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.
We’ve observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.
There are various definitions for the word “bot” or “troll”. Bot Sentinel says:
Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.
Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.
These machine learning tools compared the behaviour of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a “score” for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.
We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.
In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.
Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.
The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.
The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.
On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.
Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.
Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis – and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.
What’s clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.
Bushfires pose serious short- and long-term impacts to public drinking water quality. They can damage water supply infrastructure and water catchments, impeding the treatment processes that normally make our water safe to drink.
Several areas in New South Wales and Victoria have already been issued with warnings about the quality of their drinking water.
Here’s what we know about the short- and long-term risks.
Bushfires can damage or disrupt water supply infrastructure as they burn. And the risks can persist after the fires are out.
A loss of power, for example, disables important water treatment processes such as chlorine disinfection, needed to kill microorganisms and make our water safe to drink.
Drinking water for the towns of Eden and Boydtown on the NSW south coast has been affected in this way over recent days. Residents have been advised to boil their water before drinking it and using it for cooking, teeth brushing, and so on.
In some cases, untreated water, straight from a river supply, may be fed directly into drinking water systems. Water treatment plants are bypassed completely, due to damage, power loss, or an inability to keep pace with high volumes of water required for firefighting.
We’ve seen this in a number of southern NSW towns this week including Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba, and the southern region of Eurobodalla Council, stretching from Moruya to Tilba. Residents of these areas have also been urged to boil their drinking water.
Untreated river water, or river water which has not been properly disinfected with chlorine, is usually not safe for drinking in Australia. Various types of bacteria, as well as the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium, could be in such water.
Animals including cattle, birds and kangaroos can excrete these microorganisms into river water. Septic tanks and sewage treatment plants may also discharge effluents into waterways, adding harmful microorganisms.
Human infection with these microorganisms can cause a range of illnesses, including gastrointestinal diseases with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.
Bushfires can damage drinking water catchments, which can lead to longer term threats to drinking water. Drinking water catchments are typically forested areas, and so are vulnerable to bushfire damage.
Severe impacts to waterways may not occur until after intense rainfall. Heavy rain can wash ash and eroded soil from the fires into waterways, affecting drinking water supplies downstream.
For example, bushfire ash contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Increased nutrient concentrations can stimulate the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae”.
Cyanobacteria produce chemicals which may cause a range of water quality problems, including poor taste and odour. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxic chemicals, requiring very careful management to protect treated drinking water.
Many water treatment plants include filtration processes to filter small suspended particles from the water. But an increase in suspended particles, like that which we see after bushfires, would challenge most filtration plants. The suspended particles would be removed, but they would clog the filters, requiring them to be more frequently pulled from normal operation and cleaned.
This cleaning, or backwashing, is a normal part of the treatment process. But if more time must be spent backwashing, that’s less time the filters are working to produce drinking water. And if the rate of drinking water filtration is slowed and fails to keep pace with demand, authorities may place limitations on water use.
In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and other illnesses, water suppliers and health departments may issue a boil water alert, as we’ve seen in the past week. Bringing water to a “rolling boil” can reliably kill most of the microorganisms of concern.
In cases where water may be contaminated with chemical substances rather than microorganisms, boiling is usually not effective. So where there’s a risk of chemical contamination, public health messages are usually “do not drink tap water”. This means bottled water only.
Such “do not drink” alerts were issued this week following bushfire impacts to water treatment plants supplying the Victorian towns of Buchan and Omeo.
The current bushfire crisis provides compelling evidence of the dangers posed by extremely dry landscapes and hot, windy conditions.
While there’s noevidence “greenies” precipitated the current crisis by blocking hazard reduction, it is clear that we need to explore new ways to manage fuel loads to reduce the severity of bushfires.
It is worth considering how local, self organised, place-based, community groups could be supported to conduct various types of strategic hazard reduction, including targeted grazing and prescribed or fuel reduction burning.
Using the Landcare model for bushfire hazard reduction
One model we could look to is Landcare, which has enjoyed 30 years of bipartisan support. Funded and supported by governments, local, semi-autonomous, self-directed groups aim to take a sustainable approach to land management through on-ground projects such as habitat restoration and improving biodiversity.
These would be the equivalent of district Landcare groups, but focused on hazard reduction and fuel management. These groups could be encouraged to learn patch-burning techniques, and other landscape scale management practices, such as creating green firebreaks of non-flammable species.
If well coordinated, these techniques would reduce fire hazards across private and public lands. These groups could be an extension of existing Landcare groups combined with volunteer firefighting services. They would aim to increase capacity for fuel management at the landscape scale and provide opportunities for more people to learn skills and share knowledge, with and from professionals working in government forest and national parks agencies.
These kinds of activities, mostly in the cooler, green seasons would enhance the capacity of communities to prepare for future fires, and increase the capacity of traditional fire fighting to suppress dangerous fires.
2. These groups could work under the mentorship and authorisation of fuel management/reduction officers.
These could be public officers such as district fire officers or senior staff of public land management agencies who have had a long involvement in prescribed burning and fuel management on public lands.
3. In each district, fuel reduction periods could be officially declared.
With this declaration state governments would assume liability for fuel reduction fires, so long as they had the appropriate planning, approvals and resourcing (for example, they were undertaken by trained groups and certified by appropriate officials).
4. Fuel reduction burning should employ Indigenous fire rangers, drawing on Indigenous knowledge and celebrating Indigenous patchwork burning practices.
Land use planning and management play key roles in shaping exposure to bushfire risks, and are therefore central to disaster mitigation.
Under conditions that favour wildfires, no amount of firefighting effort can protect all lives and property. Victoria’s Black Saturday Royal Commission – a comprehensive inquiry into the fires in which 173 people died, more than 5000 were injured and more than 2,000 houses destroyed – found that under extreme conditions, wildfires overwhelm the capacity of emergency services.
South-eastern Australia has long experience of intense fires, yet our population has spread into the bushlands of coastal hinterlands and urban fringes. This has occurred despite scientists warning for more than 30 years that wildfire risks were intensifying due to climate change.
Since the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, more than 16 major inquiries have called for greater use of integrated approaches to land use planning and management to minimise disaster risks.
With climate change increasing bushfire impacts and intensities, we need to build capacity in local communities to manage fire hazard. This requires education, training and adapting policies and landscape management practices to devise plans that suit local conditions.
Countless generations of Indigenous people have effectively managed fire risk through skillful burning. It is time to learn how to burn well and to share the techniques and methods that can enable us live well in our flammable landscape.